The first sign of trouble came in December. As the investigation into the Russia scandal intensified, and credible allegations that Donald Trump obstructed justice came into focus, one of the president's attorneys argued on the record that Trump "cannot obstruct justice."
A day later, the same lawyer, John Dowd, added that because the president is the nation's "chief law enforcement officer," it's simply not possible for him to "obstruct himself."
What we didn't know until 48 hours ago was that this argument wasn't simply floated via the media as part of some kind of public-relations campaign. The New York Times reported on a 20-page memo Trump's lawyers sent in January to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, in which the president's defense team adopted a stunning legal posture:
President Trump's lawyers have for months quietly waged a campaign to keep the special counsel from trying to force him to answer questions in the investigation into whether he obstructed justice, asserting that he cannot be compelled to testify and arguing in a confidential letter that he could not possibly have committed obstruction because he has unfettered authority over all federal investigations.
In a brash assertion of presidential power, the 20-page letter -- sent to the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, and obtained by The New York Times -- contends that the president cannot illegally obstruct any aspect of the investigation into Russia's election meddling because the Constitution empowers him to, "if he wished, terminate the inquiry, or even exercise his power to pardon."
The Times published the full document online here. It argues, among other things, "[T]he President not only has unfettered statutory and Constitutional authority to terminate the FBI Director, he also has Constitutional authority to direct the Justice Department to open or close an investigation, and, of course, the power to pardon any person before, during, or after an investigation and/or conviction. Put simply, the Constitution leaves no question that the President has exclusive authority over the ultimate conduct and disposition of all criminal investigations and over those executive branch officials responsible for conducting those investigations."
Americans have probably never seen a memo quite like this one. In it, Trump's lawyers make the case that he not only can't obstruct justice, but also that he can't be subpoenaed. In their vision, the president is effectively above the law, capable of dictating the terms, scope, and duration of any federal investigation, for any reason and at any time.
In Trump World's vision, the legal system is the president's system. Mueller may be leading an investigation, but it's actually Trump's investigation.
More than two centuries after Louis XIV is rumored to have said, "L'Etat, c'est moi" ("I am the state"), an American president's lawyers articulated a similar principle, in writing, for a special counsel who considers that president to be a subject of an ongoing criminal investigation.